restricted access Joyce and Hagiography: Saints Above! (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 388-390

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R. J. Schork. Joyce and Hagiography: Saints Above! Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2000. xiv + 240 pp.

Although not exactly a hotbed of humor, narratology has produced at least one fairly well-known quip: the problem with the telephone book is that it has too many characters and too little plot. R. J. Schork's critical study, Joyce and Hagiography: Saints Above! yields something of the same objection: too many (venerable) characters, too little argument. But whereas the narratological quip solicits a snicker through a deliberate (and very unnarratological) act of genre abuse—assessing the telephone book as if it were a novel—my verdict reflects a generic confusion in the work addressed. The layout and design of the book, the organization of the chapters, and the style of the writing all create the illusion of accustomed expository scholarship and even maintain that illusion, in the manner of an amputated limb, amid the entirely different and much less bracing experience of reading what turns out to be a specialized encyclopedia or, to be more precise, a census. Spectacularly erudite but singularly lacking in any dynamic organizing principle—narrative, analytical, or polemic—Joyce and Hagiography is less an interpretation than a tabulation of the Irish novelist's deployment of saintly motifs; it is less a book to be read, accordingly, than to be consulted.

If the question were merely one of deceptive or mistaken packaging, moving the book from the stacks to the reference section of the library would pretty much set matters to rights. The volume, abstruseness, and serviceability of the information contained in Joyce and Hagiography are such that one even feels inclined to forgive the surprisingly prominent exiguities: the patron saint of Ireland, for example, makes little more than a cameo here, as does the Blessed Virgin. Less easy to abide, however, is the difficulty of accessing this abundant intelligence in workable forms, a user unfriendliness that is the direct result of the text's generic mesconnaissance.

In the introduction, Schork assures his audience, "I have no ulterior motive—and certainly no theological design—in examining [End Page 388] Joycean hagiography. I am also thoroughly convinced that Joyce's inclusion of saintly matters is not intended [. . .] to be an emblem of nostalgically rejected fervor or an overture to bitter anathemata" (15). With this statement of purpose, or rather purposiveness without purpose, Schork does more than affect an ethos of scrupulous neutrality as the preferred mode of examining Joyce's hagiographical references. He proposes that such a value-free perspective serendipitously answers to Joyce's own attitude in crafting them. In other words, having disavowed a slant on Joyce's rewriting of the hagiographic tradition, he denies any slant to that rewriting.

As a result, Schork's presentation unfolds in a series of sometimes fascinating, sometimes bewildering cul-de-sacs. Joyce's appropriation of saintly legends, names, and associations are variously deemed "overtly funny," "genially blasphemous," "congenially [. . .] cross-cultural," "right on the mark," "outrageously recherche," "cryptic," "joyful," etc., but never in any way designing or purposeful beyond the aim of eliciting laughter. Schork has, in effect, thrown out the point, any point, with the ulterior motive. Students of Joyce must welcome his extensive hagiographic annotation of Finnegans Wake—the main focus of this study—and a smaller group of genetic scholars will be more impressed than I was by his rather constricting evidentiary use of the Wake notebooks; but all must be frustrated by his steadfast refusal to make exegetical claims concerning the thematic import, let alone the cultural or political implications, of the allusive networks he traces. For in this absence of an interpretive orientation, the reader is unable to ascertain the principles of relevancy that would give the information provided an intelligible shape. Even when considerable attention is paid to individual figures, such as St. Onuphrius and St. Kevin, or individual correspondences, such as the elaborate and intriguing parallelism drawn between St. Paul and Oscar Wilde, their significance for an enriched understanding of Joyce's literary universe or the sort of...